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Unknown Symmetry: A Biography of Our Band

Our newest CD, Unknown Symmetry, is days away from being released!   Our sophomore album has been about 4 years in the making, and in many ways it is a history of our group from the beginning to the present.  Fans of TCP might be scratching their heads now – Didn’t we release our sophomore album last season(The Percussion Music of John Cage, 2012)?

…It’s complicated.

Our first EP, Ritual Music, was tracked in a large rehearsal room off-hours – it was all very DIY.   In 2009 we were looking around for more swanky places to record and spent time tracking in some local Chicago studios.   At that point we weren’t even sure what was actually going to be on the next album.   We had a bunch of rep that we had been touring that season and were asking ourselves the same question we always seem to end up at: “how can we make a thematic album with a bunch of non-related repertoire?”  Perhaps more importantly in the 21st century, “Does an album release even NEED to be thematic?”

The first 2 works we recorded for our new disc aren’t even on the album.   We showed up at a small studio on Chicago’s north side with our cars full of gear to track Cage’s Third Construction and Manoury’s marimba duo from Le Livre des Claviers.   Third Construction ended up being re-recorded for our latest MODE records release, and the Manoury was re-recorded in its entirety in 2010.  That recording, with all of its crazy sixxen, is in the can and coming out next year…… I told you this was complicated.

While the audio of that early session has never seen the light of day, it led us to some of our closest colleagues and collaborators.    We knew Greg Beyer wasn’t too far away from Chicago and, needing a session producer for the tracking, we called him up.  We had never worked with him before, but it was an amazing experience that has turned into many years of creative activity together.  Since then, Greg has gone on to produce many of our recordings and has also been part of all our sextet repertoire (Grisey, Rihm, Manoury, etc.).    Greg also introduced us to the greatest engineer in the world who has been part of every recording project since.

With the music we play, finding a great engineer is tricky.   Things weren’t working out in 2009 and, after spending a day in the studio with us, Greg mentioned his colleague Dan Nichols at Northern Illinois University.  We went out there that next summer to spend a few days with him and ended up tracking Christopher Deane’s Vespertine Formations which you’ll get to hear on the album.   What makes a great engineer great?   All I can say is that, beyond having amazing ears, Dan understands the sound of percussion instruments more than most professional percussionists.  He has the ears, the technique, the gear, and is always excited for the most off-the-wall projects we bring to him.  We have many fond memories of him: stringing up U-channeling with us, building individual foam houses for us and our wind chimes 😯 , crashing next to his chinchillas…..  One of his hand-built microphones, the “binaural sphere”, has routinely been considered for new album titles.  But I digress…

As soon as we found our engineer, we got set up to record an entire album of John Cage’s music for MODE records, and our original “sophomore album” got pushed back on the timeline.  Soon after that we were recording an entire album of Philippe Manoury’s percussion music and after that we recorded Augusta Read Thomas’ Resounding Earth for a release on the New Focus label this next fall.   Since the beginning of our work on Unknown Symmetry, TCP has managed to record 3 other full-length albums (4 if you included the soon to be released “Music for 18 Musicians” with Ensemble Signal).

Unknown Symmetry is an album that was recorded in pieces, in-between other projects.  If we had a few days off, we’d run up to DeKalb and record with Dan.    We never really thought of how one work fit with the next.   We felt compelled to record these works because we loved them, yet we really had no idea when or  where they’d show up as a final product.    Many of these pieces are familiar to anyone who’s seen a TCP show over the past few years.  Peter Garland’s Apple Blossom was part of our early touring repertoire and on almost every show we did during our first substantial touring in the Spring of 2009.  Clay Condon’s piece Fractalia has been on 90% of the shows I’ve played with TCP over the past season.  We played David Skidmore’s Common Patterns in Uncommon Time on a large  tour through in 2012-13, at Millennium Park last summer, and are about to tour it again in VA next month.   Christopher Deane’s Vespertine Formations is unique amongst all of the repertoire on this new disc in that it was one of the works on TCP’s very first show (aawwwhh…).  Fratres is also a bit different – if you weren’t  at the Chopin Theatre in Chicago on December 15th, 2009 at 7:30pm, this album will be the first for you.

I forgot to mention the DVD in all of this.   Unknown Symmetry is a double discrelease – 1 has the audio, the other is a video of the live performance of the premiere of David Skidmore’s Common Patterns in Uncommon Time.  I could write an entire blog on just this piece, but when I think of this album and the narrative of our group it provides, what resonates the most for me is the relationship with our close friend and supporter Sidney K. Robinson.   We met Sid at Taliesin in Wisconsin many years ago.   He’s been a key figure in many of our artistic pursuits in the past 3 years including the commissioning of this work.

The album doesn’t fit the “classical record” stereotype – it’s not a composer portrait, the pieces don’t all fall under the same aesthetics, etc.   Rather, listening through Unknown Symmetry is learning how we have grown as an ensemble – from the repertoire we have played to the colleagues and relationships we have developed over the years, to the recording process itself (some works were done with just a couple well placed microphones in a room, others were a bit more advanced).  We love this album.  Yes, it’s taken a while to finish, but if we had released our “sophomore album” way back in 2009 or 2010, we wouldn’t have wound up with disc that was so meaningful to us.

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Third Coast Percussion to join University of Notre Dame as Ensemble-in-Residence

Notre Dame!

We are thrilled to announce that Third Coast Percussion has been named ensemble-in-residence at the University of Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center!

As ensemble-in-residence, Third Coast will perform on the university’s Presenting Series, engage in interdisciplinary collaborations across campus, premiere new works, conduct master classes and provide community-building outreach performances for youth in local schools.

We are beyond excited to be partnering with this incredible institution. Our new position at Notre Dame begins this summer and will continue for the next 5 academic years. We will be maintaining an active presence on campus throughout the year, though the ensemble will still be based in Chicago. Click here to read the full press release.

We have some incredible projects in the works already, including collaborations with the university’s College of Engineering and Master of Sacred Music program. We plan to tour many of these projects around the country so stay tuned for more details!

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Travel Log: How to Build a Pianotron

TCP was in Colorado this past month for a week and a half of performances and masterclasses throughout the state.   The Rocky Mountain State (aka the land of Green Chili and Subaru’s) provided us with many amazing experiences, topped off in Boulder, CO where we were given a very old and wheezy upright piano to nip/tuck into Pianotron v2.0.   The first Pianotron was the brainchild of Clay Condon, and made its debut back in 2009 on a performance of Louis Andriessen’s Workers Union as part of TCP’s Chicago Concert Season.  Since then, we’ve made it part of our John Cage repertoire in the third movement his early work Quartet.

Step 1: Sedate and prep patient for surgery.  We dig our piano out from a dusty basement corner and move to the CU Boulder student commons.  We check our surgical tools.

Step 2: Begin with incisions to the sternum, exposing arteries.  Remove Arteries.

Step 3: Ask Clay and Rob to help (Dave has a phobia of blood.  He aced the MCAT’s but just couldn’t cut it in the OR…. he sucks it up to take some photos…..).  There are a lot small bones in the way.  Get rid of them, you don’t need them.  We find 88 bones in all and give them away as souvenirs.

Step 4:   New plan: lay the patient down and break out out the larger tools.  Cue crowbars.

Step 5:  Almost done, just have to trim a little more fat off the edge.

Step 6:  Success!  Move patient to recovery room before the debut performance.

There’s something about a piano – it’s that one instrument that we all have some personal affection towards.  It’s the instrument you grew up with, it was part of your home.  It sat in your living room, it was part of the family.  You and your siblings learned to play on the same piano that your mother or father did.  It was passed down from your grandparents to your parents to you.   A piano brings out all of these memories in us and to destroy something so cherished brings out some interesting emotions in people.   But, really, making a Pianotron isn’t destroying anything:).  It’s bringing a new life to a broken instrument – reappropriating a thing of the past that’s no longer useful and bringing it back to it’s most important purpose: making music.

In writing this, I’m reminded of an article and video from the New York Times I read over a year ago about “where piano’s go to die”.  Check it out:  For More Pianos, Last Note is Thud in the Dump

More people should make Pianotron’s:).

We loved our new instrument.  The shows were fantastic and we laughed as faculty and students at CU Boulder haggled over who got to keep the pianotron after it was all done.  Many thanks to everyone at CU Boulder for their assistance.  A special shout out to Hunter Ewen, the mastermind behind the event at the Atlas Theater.  It’s so great to work with people with the mindset that anything and everything is possible:).

-PJM

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TCP Travel Log: South Bend, IN

TCP has been traveling across the country this Fall.   Below are some highlights from our 6 day trip to South Bend, Indiana for the world premiere performance of Augusta Read ThomasResounding Earth, commissioned by Third Coast Percussion along with the Debartolo Performing Arts Center, the VCU School of the Arts, and Chamber Music America.

We rolled into South Bend on September 25th.  A truckload full of gear to unload, Clay parks the company Lambo* and we set up in the Debartolo Performing Arts Center on the campus of Notre Dame.

*We do not have a company Lambo.  Clay has been trying to work it into our budget, but for some reason the numbers don’t seem to add up….  We do humor Clay by allowing him to squeeze his Ducati into the back of our moving truck, between the 6 giant racks and the cases of Thai Gongs.   More info on TCP’s apparent obsession with Italian sporting vehicles in a future blog post by Clay Condon:).

The hall at Debartolo is gorgeous.  It really doesn’t get much better than this.  Amazing space, fantastic crew, we set up Resounding Earth and prepare for a week of performances, outreach activities, and recording.

Photos by Peter Martin

We had some fantastic experiences interacting with students from Notre Dame and area public schools while we were there.  A big shout out to the Debartolo Center, Anna Thompson, and Sean Martin for setting the entire residency up for us!

Photos Copyright DeBartolo Performing Arts Center and Kirk Richard Smith

We had a 2 day recording session for an upcoming CD/DVD release of Resounding Earth.  With us at the session as always was Dan Nichols (Audio Engineer) and Rosse Karre (Video).   We also had the luxury of having the composer, Augusta Read Thomas, produce the session for us!  Recording sessions are always crazy, particularly when you add video into the mix.  Thanks to everyone who worked on the session, we got everything in the can ahead of schedule and started prepping for the premiere performance.

The concert was fantastic.  A packed hall with an enthusiastic audience playing amazing repertoire.  What more can you ask for? Check out a nice preview of the show from the South Bend Tribune as well as a great review from I Care if You Listen.

Photo Copyright DeBartolo Performing Arts Center and Tadashi Omura

As I write this post, TCP is gearing up for 2 more performances of Resounding Earth in California over the next 2 weeks.  Check back for more news and photos from our Travel Log!

-PJM

*Be sure to check out the complete photo gallery from our week at Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center.

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Travel Log: Florida, September 2012

TCP landed in Tampa, FL last week – 5 days in the sunshine state culminating in our performance at New Music New College on Saturday, the 22nd.

First order of business was to refuel and recharge at a local eatery, Skippers Smokehouse, thanks to the solid research of TCP’s culinary adviser, Mr. Robert Dillon.  

Yes, that is a tree growing out of the restaurant.   Other observations include the reaffirmation that many things taste like chicken, including Alligator.

We stopped by University of South Florida for a Masterclass on the music of John Cage with student percussionists before loading a truck full of gear and heading down to Sarasota.

Many, many thanks to Bob McCormick and his wonderful students at USF for a great discussion and their assistance with all of the instruments.

After unloading at New College.  We spent the next few days setting up, sound checking, working with students, and falling in love with a new piano.

Yamaha has a new competitor in the auto/instrument business!  In all seriousness, 9 times out of 10 when TCP is on tour we end up playing on a $100,000+ Steinway D piano.  Problem is, these instruments don’t really work for our repertoire (Cage’s 2nd ConstructionCredo in US).  The issue is with the structural braces inside the piano that hold everything together.  In 100% of the 9 ft. concert grands I’ve encountered, there is a structural beam located right on top of the specific strings I have to mute with one hand in Credo.  Structural beams also interfere with Clay’s preparations in 2nd Construction and his ability to create the unique sounds (harmonics, etc.) of his part.     For some reason, the engineering on this axe is about as perfect as you can get for TCP’s performing.

Nothing says “New Music Diva” like when a presenter shows you a beautiful concert grand and you complain about not being able to shove screws into it effectively:).  So Clay and I generally keep our mouths shut, suck it up and fine unique ways around problematic sections.  Not the case with this instrument!

Horowitz used to travel with his own piano – now that would be cool.   I’m not sure if the same is going to happen with TCP, especially given the rest of the gear we haul around on a daily basis.  But we will be keeping a look out for Hyundai’s in the future.

Our show in Sarasota was fantastic and the New Music College students who joined us for a performance of John Cage’s Radio Music did a brilliant job!  Check out a recent review in Arts Sarasota.   A special shout out to Stephen Miles for bringing us down to New Music New College and Ron Silver for his amazing talents and assistance with audio and lighting!

After 24 hrs back home on Monday, Third Coast is back on the road, currently in South Bend, Indiana for the premiere performance of Augusta Read Thomas’ Resounding Earth and a short residency at University of Notre Dame.  Stay tuned for more musings from the travel log.

-PJM

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